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3.09.2013

Justin Masterson: The Big Hoss of the Tribe Rotation

Bryan Belknap | Saturday, March 09, 2013 | | Best Blogger Tips

For me, pitchers are like Hollywood cowboys, gunslingers.  Baseball is a team sport, but it begins one on one, a showdown at high noon.  The pitcher stares down the batter.  The climatic music plays.  He fires.  For sixty feet and six inches, it is mano-a-mano. 

Not all cowboys are the same, of course. 

Some like Rooster Colburn survive by grit and bile.  Bite the reigns of your horse, double guns blazing, and charge that angry mob.  Some like Jack Beauregard can stand alone against 150 armed and angry men. The elite skills that put a person in the history books.  “The man with no name” are as likely to get you to gun down yourself as take you down.  “Baxters over there, Rojos there, me right smack in the middle.”  And some just seize the day.  Why worry about drowning when the fall will kill you?     

Pitchers are just as colorful a bunch. You have grizzled vets like later-year Nolan Ryan.  Charge my mound and I'll give you a nuggie.  Those with elite skills like Mariano Rivera.  "I throw one pitch and no one can hit it."  You have the masters of deception like Mark Buerhle.  He never throws above 88 mph, but he still gets you out.    You have the live in the moment types, cause your stuff can't carry you. 

Let’s focus for a moment.  Let’s look at Cleveland’s opening day starter.  If Justin Masterson were a Hollywood cowboy, who would he be? 

I’m going with Eric “Hoss” Cartwright of Bonanza. 

Now before you think that this is meant as an insult, it is not.  Sure every pitcher would want to have a cowboy doppelganger that was portrayed by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.  But you need some Cy Young worthy seasons to be “the Good” that beat “the Bad” and “the Ugly.”  Cause lets face it, “the Bad” and “the Ugly” were really, really good.  There are tons of quick draws only one can be the fastest.

Hoss Cartwright with his brothers Adam and Little Joe formed a formidable team.  Hoss was the brawn,  Adam was the brains, and Little Joe was the charm.  Bonanza was very successful ranch.  If your favorite team was Bonanza, then you are doing well.  On a scale, lately Cleveland has been leaning heavily on the E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times end rather than the much sunnier Bonanza end. 

Hoss gets his nickname because it means big and friendly.  At 6-6/250, no one could claim Masterson was Little Joe.  I am not implying Masterson is slow witted, but guilty as charged with the implication of not being little.  And while I don’t know Masterson on a personal level, that guy gushes friendly from every pore of his being.  Again without knowing the guy, I like my Vegas odds with big and friendly.

What is Masterson’s game?  He throws two pitches, fastball and slider. In theory, he has a changeup as well, but it shows up at the stadium with about as much frequency as fans sporting John Rocker jerseys.  Justin isn’t going to out think the batter.  His is not a finesse game.  His is a strength game.

But here’s the thing, Masterson is not a lone gunman. He doesn’t throw a triple digit fastball.  His fastball averages 91.9 mph on his career.  He has never struck out more than 159 in a season and has a 7.07 KO/9 career average. Justin struck out 17.6% of the batters he faced last year.  He is a guy that needs a good team.  In contrast, Craig Kimbrel, closer for the Braves, struck out 50.6% of the batters he faced.  Most of the time, Kimbrel didn’t need a team behind him.  Kimbrel gets the Clint Eastwood character comparisons.  Masterson rides with a gang.

Masterson’s bread and butter is his sinker.  He wants hitters to drive the ball into the ground and have the infielders get the out.  On his career, that happens 56% of the time. 

Masterson must be viewed as part of a team and not a lone avenger. 

One reason we must temper our expectations for Justin is his reliance on the Tribe infield.  It is not great.  Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis are offensive middle infielders.  They didn’t make it to major leagues based on the defensive prowess.  They are not terrible defensively, mind you.  But they have not, nor will ever be, part of a golden glove conversation.  Lonnie Chisenhall is growing into the third base job, but the hope here is adequacy rather than defensive excellence.  Nick Swisher fits the theme we have going, good but not great.

It would be nice if, like the Cartwrights, all the strength and weakness of the team fit together perfectly.  They don’t.  Masterson isn’t winning any Cy Youngs with this infield.  Sorry, it ain’t happening.  When he is on, he is getting groundballs.  Groundballs find holes with limited-range infielders. 

Masterson is who he is.  Just like Hoss. Because of his three quarters arm angle, he can’t add a curve to his arsenal.  Furthermore, lefties get a long look at his pitches.  And sinker and slider tend to break into lefties hot zones.   So, he relies on his four-seam fastball against lefties.   It is a weakness. 

But lets not bemoan what we don’t have and appreciate what we do have.  Justin has a bowling ball sinker and very nice slider.  On his career, right-handers hit for a .221 average and a .606 OPS.  In 2011, he had a 3.21 ERA and 3.28 FIP.  Even as he struggled last year, his FIP was a respectable 4.16.  Cleveland has never fielded a stellar infield defense behind him.  So, the positive results are repeatable with this average fielding infield.   

What went wrong in 2012 compared to 2011?  Walks and home runs. 

Masterson threw 3% fewer pitches in the strike zone.  But batters were not chasing balls out of the strike zone at a greater rate.  As a result, he averaged one more walk per nine innings.  It is a safe assumption that the additional balls also meant Masterson pitch from behind the count more often.  This could also explain the increased home run rate. 

Was there something mechanically wrong?  Is Masterson simply loosing control?  I don’t think so.  His first pitch strike rate actually improved in 2012.  He had 56.9 first pitch strike percentage in ’11 and 57.7 in ‘12.  If there were some general decline in control, we would expect to see that trend on the first pitch percentages.  This looks like a pitcher that was nibbling the strike zone.  Trying to be perfect.  He needs to get back to trusting his stuff and pounding the strike zone. 

I expect Masterson to rebound to 2011 production.  He should pitch 200 innings.  Routinely work into the 7th inning.  Have an ERA and FIP around 3.50.

He’ll be our Hoss.  Let hope the Tribe can be our Bonanza. 

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Bryan Belknap is a contributing writer to The Tribe Daily. You can follow him on Twitter @thatteamfromcleveland and read his other work at That team from Cleveland.

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